The picture above is King’s School, Canterbury, Kent, which Marlowe attended before moving on to Cambridge.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe is generally recognized as the second greatest Elizabethan dramatist, the greatest being Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare though he does not have shelves of various editions of his works, and immense volumes of Marlowe criticism occupying space in bookstores. George Bernard Shaw called the adulation of Shakespeare Bardolatry.

When I was an undergraduate I caused Philip Highfill, the Shakespeare professor, a great deal of distress by publicly proclaiming that I preferred Oedipus at Colonnus to King Lear, and I espoused, covertly, what I called a semi-Marlovian attitude regarding the question of Shakespeare’s authorship. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but it would have been better if it had been written by Marlowe. Such was my heretical position at the time. Whether I would place Marlowe as equal to or a little less than Shakespeare I can’t say today.

I suppose that it’s only fair to add that I named my older son after Zooey Glass and Christopher Marlowe. His brother is named after George Bernard Shaw. As far as I know neither has read the literature pertaining to their names.

Marlowe was born in 1564, and died in 1593. In that time he composed an erotic poem, Hero and Leander; wrote lyrics, such as The Passionate Shepherd; produced six plays, including Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta; and spied on the Jesuits for Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is one of Marlowe’s best known, and best loved lyrics. Here is the opening stanza:

COME live with me and be my Love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dale and field, And all the craggy mountains yield.

We’ve come a long way linguistically and metrically from the plays of York.

In Tamburlane the Great, Part I, this distance is announced:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits, And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay, We'll lead you to the stately tent of war, Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine Threatening the world with high astounding terms, And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword. View but his picture in this tragic glass, And then applaud his fortunes as you please.

While not aimed specifically at the York plays, or anything like them, it’s obvious that he’s criticizing the heavy iambic thumping of other dramatists, and he’s promising something a bit more polished than mechanical regularity.

Marlowe’s heroes are generally men who seek to go beyond the circumscribed limits imposed on them. So does Tamburlaine, who was a shepherd and bandit, and who becomes a leader. We see the moment of transformation here:

TAMBURLAINE. And ride in triumph through Persepolis! Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles?— Usumcasane and Theridamas, Is it not passing brave to be a king, And ride in triumph through Persepolis?

Part I follows Tamburlaine from triumph to triumph. Here we have the beginning of the pride that will undo him in Part II.

Tamburlaine throughout both plays thinks of himself in grand terms, ultimately he thinks of himself as greater than God. He has a copy of the Koran burnt, and is struck ill. He dies a victim of the God he denies.

Tamburlaine’s burning of the Koran is problematical for me, since I do not accept the Koran as being the revealed word of God. Is Marlowe, who may have held dubious religious opinions, up to and including atheism, saying that God destroys those who deny any of the Abrahamic religions, or that Islam is true. I don’t think the latter opinion would go over to well with Marlowe’s audience, so the message, if any, is somewhat different. It may well be that the act of blasphemy against any religion, with its accompanying act of pride that puts Tamburlane higher than God, is sufficiently grave as to merit death.

In Dr. Faustus we’ve moved from the man who overreaches through acts of valor and pride to the man who overreaches through acts of the intellect. Faust seeks forbidden knowledge, or at least knowledge that is acquired through forbidden means.

Faust exists in two variant texts. One, Quarto A*, is supposed to be closer to the play as Marlowe wrote it. The other, Quarto B, contains later additions made after Marlowe’s death. Supposedly these were made for a revival in 1602.

The primary difference in the two texts is that additional comic scenes have been added to the later version.

Throughout the course of the play Faust continually thinks of repenting, and annulling the contract. The good angel and the bad angel make frequent appearances. The good angel urging Faust to repentance, and the bad angel to perseverance in evil. Faust continually asserts his damnation and his fear that it is too late to repent. The good angel continually offers escape. This seems to play off the standard idea of free will against Calvinist predestination. Faust is the one who accepts the idea of predestination, it doesn’t come from the divine side of the ledger, but from the demonic side. This may represent a Marlovian criticism of Calvinism, or it may be simply a device to create dramatic tension, or it may be both.

Faust, as I’ve said before, is one of the enemies of God. His opposition is intellectual, while Don Juan’s is sensual/erotic. Yet despite having tremendous pride in his intellect, what exactly does he achieve? A vision of the seven deadly sins, some horseplay, and a dalliance with Helen of Troy. That’s not very much for 24 years and your soul.

I have a very hard time reading Dr. Faustus as anything other than a version of the Medieval morality play. There are different readings, however, and the interested reader can pursue them.

The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice are impossible to watch as Elizabethan audiences did. 400 years and the Holocaust separate us emotionally from the Elizabethan view of the Jews.

The Jew of Malta is a forerunner of Shakespeare’s Merchant. I think many of us, because we learned Shylock’s great speech before we read the play, tend to think that the play is not anti-semitic, and yet Shakespeare’s audience saw Shylock, and Barabas in The Jew of Malta, as villains. Oddly enough there is a Christian boy loves Jewish girl plot in both. I don’t know if this reflected some social reality of the time, or if it’s simply a matter of having some plot device to emphasize the alien nature of the Jewish father.

Interestingly, the ending, which has Shylock betrayed in a most Machiavellian manner by his Christian enemies, seems to undercut both Shylock’s Machiavellianism and the play’s anti-semitism. It shows the Christians as being equal in villainy to the Jew.

One reading that’s been proposed is to regard Marlowe’s play as a black comedy. There is certain dark humor in the way in which Barabas and Ithamore boast of their misdeeds, and in the outlandish treacheries that they perform. I read it some years back and this was how I saw it then.

Today, however, I see it a bit differently. Barabas has gotten much wealth, while Malta is 10 years in arrears on paying tribute to the Turks. When the money is demanded, the governor of the island, who has apparently just woken up to the fact that he’s a bit behind in his debt payments, says “Hey, we don’t have any money, so lets take it from the Jews.” Now note that you can strip out the word “Jews” and insert “rich” to make it sound like a current political statement.

This leads to a reflection that Marlowe portrays taxation as blatant theft, and that the money is obtained through force. Now I don’t want to make Marlowe into a modern day conservative or tea partier, but he does seem to have a portrait of demagoguery, where “Tax the Jew” as the possessor of ill gotten gains matches “Tax the rich,” as the possessors of ill gotten gains. Marlowe may be making a point about demagoguery here.

I’m not a big fan of alternative stagings. I don’t think you should make Romeo and Juliet into a play about black-white relations, as one production in DC did back in 1964. The best way is probably in Elizabethan costumes, possibly in Roman/Greek dress for the plays set in Greece and Rome, or ordinary street clothes. In this case, however, I can see a production in which the Maltese are portrayed as Democratic politicians from the current administration, the Turks are played by Chinese, and Barabas is played as an everyman character. It might be interesting to see.

Edward II is another play about overreaching, in this case it’s about what academics love to call transgressing the sexual boundaries. Edward is one of England’s homosexual kings.** Marlowe makes this quite clear by having his queen complain of his neglect. After his favorite, Gaveston, is murdered he installs another favorite, Spenser, in his stead. The powerful nobles around Edward, including his queen, conspire to depose him, and to murder him. Mortimer, the queen’s lover, had boasted at one point that he now turned fortune’s wheel, He intends to reign as regent, with Isabella, the queen, however, Edward III asserts his authority, and he is beheaded.

Homosexuality, as a linguistic term, did not exist until 1892, when it was first used in a translation of Kraft-Ebbing. Homosexual activity existed, obviously, far earlier. Now in the Renaissance it was possible to be quite effusive towards a person of the same gender without necessarily crossing the line, wherever it is, into homosexual activity. Attitudes towards sex were also somewhat different. Marlowe makes it clear though that Gaveston exerts a sexual influence over Edward, and because one of the primary functions of a king is to produce more kings, distractions such as Gaveston were frowned upon.

Edward’s murder, which according to a later tradition, accepted by Marlowe, was through a red-hot poker inserted into his anus. The obvious inference is that this punishment is, like the punishments in Dante’s hell, a contrapasso, a symbolic representation of the sin that is condemned.

When Mortimer asserts that he turns fortune’s wheel he commits an act of hubris that assures his downfall. The wheel of fortune is a symbol of the seemingly random changes that can occur in life. It embodies an idea contained in the parable about the rich man who decides the time has come to relax and enjoy life, and is told that he must die that day. It is right at the moment when some apex has been reached that you’re set up for a fall. We see this working out in real life as well as literature. Just when you’ve reached the peak of your success, you let out with an anti-semitic rant to cop making a drunk driving arrest, and later on, after another racist outburst, you crash your Maserati into a hillside. That’s just one example of fortune’s wheel turning in the present day.

If there’s anything the Renaissance did well, and it did many things well, it was spawn revenge tragedies. Next time we’ll be looking at several revenge tragedies, including the one that provided background for Hamlet, and which is referred to in The Wasteland, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

*A folio is a large sheet of paper that is not folded. You can print two large pages on a folio sheet. A quarto is a large sheet of paper, the same size as a folio sheet, that has been folded in half vertically and horizontally. This gives a sheet on which four small pages are printed on each side. This gives a total of eight pages per sheet. Quarto sheets have to be set very carefully because the sheets, as printed, do not have sequential pages on each side.

**At least four English kings took a walk on the gay side. Richard I, aka The Lion Heart; Edward II, Richard II, and James I.

>